PHOENIX – Ten years ago marked a year of misery for Arizona sports fans.
The Suns finished the 2012-13 regular season last in the Western Conference, the Cardinals entered the offseason after finishing last in the NFC West and the Coyotes missed the NHL playoffs one year removed from a conference finals appearance.
Luckily for those living in the Valley, some of baseball’s greatest talents made their way to Chase Field and Salt River Fields for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Ryan Braun, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez and Anthony Rizzo led their respective countries through a competitive four days of international play.
As the tournament wraps up pool play Wednesday in the Valley, where the WBC has returned for the first time in a decade, a new generation of MLB talent has emerged to compete for their nations.
Led by Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Paul Goldschmidt, the Americans hope to avoid a repeat of 2013, when Team USA failed to advance past Pool 2’s qualifiers round. Through its first three games this year at Chase Field, the United States is 2-1 and sits one win away from advancing to Miami for the new single-elimination knockout round.
While a win Wednesday against Colombia would help erase the bad taste from a decade ago, the 2013 WBC left an imprint on Phoenix that has carried over to today as fan enthusiasm remains high.
Since Saturday, Chase Field has offered players an October atmosphere in March – a stark contrast for MLB players from the regular season.
“When you play in a big league game with a sold-out crowd, there’s always a buzz about it, nothing crazy. It’s very reactionary where if someone hits a home run, people cheer or if someone strikes out, people cheer,” said Jameson Taillon who pitched for Team Canada in the 2013 WBC. “During the World Baseball Classic, there’s more anticipation. People are getting more excited for two strikes or a big hitter and they get on their feet. It almost feels like playoff baseball where every pitch counts.”
Kyle Schwarber has played his best baseball under pressure during his time in MLB, recording homers in a wild card game, the Division Series and Championship Series rounds and the World Series.
“You’re in playoff-atmosphere baseball in March. It’s really cool,” Schwarber said. “I think it’s all about the reason we’re here for. We’re here for our country, and we’re here to go out there and try to get to the very end of this thing.”
In 2013, the postseason-like intensity came to a head in the ninth inning of Canada and Mexico’s matchup when the first and only benches-clearing brawl in the tournament’s history erupted.
Tension began to build with Team Canada holding a six-run lead in the final inning. Canadian catcher Chris Robinson bunted for a single to lead off the inning – a move that would be frowned upon in the majors.
However, at the time, the tiebreaker for the WBC was determined by run differential, which encouraged teams to score as many runs as possible, no matter the game scenario.
The next batter received a fastball straight to his back, and that’s when benches cleared and chaos ensued. Thanks to the brawl, the World Baseball Classic has new tiebreaker rules that should help avoid a repeat situation.
“At the time, I didn’t know the bracket play was by run differential. Every run counted, and we were trying to scrap out every run,” said Taillon, who faced major league hitters for the first time in his career that year. “We were just competitors out there. I remember we had water bottles thrown at us from the stands, and Larry Walker, the Hall of Famer, was ready to go.”
Although the brawl was notable, pool D provided individual performances that will go down in World Baseball Classic history. At the end of the tournament, the All-WBC team was announced, with Team USA third baseman David Wright and Team Canada outfielder Michael Saunders on the team as the only players from pool D.
In the three games played for Canada, Saunders led the tournament in batting average (.727), slugging (1.273) and on-base percentage (2.042). He had the fourth-most RBIs (7) in the tournament and the second-most doubles (3).
“I didn’t know a ton about (Saunders) before the tournament, but I quickly found out he’s a beast. It’s always cool to share the field with someone who is on fire at that level,” Taillon said. “I’ve seen Aaron Judge do it, Saunders did it during the WBC, and I’ve seen Andrew McCutchen do it. It’s cool when really talented athletes get on a roll.”
Wright also had a tournament to remember. “Captain America” led the field with 10 RBI – four of which came on a go-ahead grand slam into the left field bleachers at Chase Field against Italy to give the U.S. its first lead of the tournament.
This year, players are making their own marks in the same way Saunders and Wright did 10 years ago.
There’s only one day left to add their names to the Chase Field history books, but expect more fireworks Wednesday with two games featuring Mexico vs. Canada and USA vs. Colombia.